Fear and distrust as Mexico brings drug vigilantes in from the cold

‘Autodefensas’ had prospered as an alternative to corrupt local police forces


On a sweltering afternoon in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, a lot of local pride is on show – but not much by way of professionalism. The 120 officers of the town’s brand-new Fuerza Rural (Rural Police Force – RPF) are undergoing training on how to climb in and out of pickup trucks. One catches his shin on the trailer door, holding everyone else up. Another forgets that it’s supposed to be two in the front, two in the back and they have to start again.

In the next field over a teenager slaps cows through a corral. The trainees have to disperse briefly while another cow arrives in a pickup truck. Outside the makeshift arsenal – housed in a cattle shed – a teenage officer dozes with his assault rifle in his lap.

For the past 12 years, vigilante groups have struggled against the tide of drug-related violence engulfing the western state of Michoacán in Mexico. Founded as an alternative to the inefficient, corrupt state police, the untrained autodefensa groups have battled the Knights Templar drug cartel with rugged, Wild West tactics including improvised road blocks and dramatic showdowns. Their successes include the killing or capture of three significant cartel leaders and have convinced the government to authorise their activities.

The first autodefensas patrolled the roads of Michoacán in farm trucks, using hunting rifles and shotguns. Their leaders were equally colourful. “El Doctor” José Manuel Mireles, a man in a large cowboy hat, headed up the outfits until his down- home charm erred on the wrong side of “informal” when addressing the country’s president. His place has been taken by Estanislao Beltrán, “Papa Smurf”, so-called for his enormous, Old Testament prophet- style beard.

Federal control
As of last weekend, there are no more autodefensas in Michoacán. They have been merged in to a single, state-sanctioned unit: the RPF. There had been talk of disarming the autodefensas. However, amid fears of a violent breakaway, the government has opted to bring the vigilantes under federal control. The farm trucks have been replaced with enormous white pick-up trucks, and the autodefensas wear uniforms and carry standard-issue assault rifles.

I ask Sergio, a burly trainer, about the difference between being a vigilante and being an RPF officer. “We were never anything else but the police,” he says. “Our mandate is from the people and we are the people, so we are 100 per cent incorruptible. We have suffered the same things as the people we want to protect. All we want is peace and quiet – nothing more.”

Array of police forces
But the odds are stacked against the rural force. Mexico is already home to a confusing array of police forces, ranging from diplomatic police to transit police to tourist police to the Federales. According to Memo, a bar-owner in Uruapan, the autodefensas are likely to become just another force once the initial rush of enthusiasm wears off. “They’re getting paid now,” he says. “Their motivation has changed.”

Michoacán is subject to corruption at an institutional level. The former state governor was recently arrested over his cartel ties, along with the mayor of the major port city of Lázaro Cardenas. Police routinely rent out patrol cars and uniforms for shakedowns and kidnappings.

The RPF is not likely to be any less susceptible. A number of vigilante groups have been infiltrated by cartel members who claim to be vigilantes as a front for their usual activities. Indeed, the Knights Templars’ earliest incarnation was as an autodefensa operation aimed at battling the Michoacán family cartel.

The previous two presidential administrations all but sponsored the Sinaloa cartel as a wedge against the other splinter groups, with arrests and interventions focusing on their rivals. The return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in December 2012 was always going to signal a change in tack in the war on drugs.

The high-profile arrests of Zeta and Sinaloa cartel leaders in the past year suggest the government is not backing any particular cartel in the war on drugs. Its state-by-state pragmatism means it could well accept a cartel presence in the new force if it were to prevent a violent breakaway on the part of the vigilantes. Autodefensas are also active throughout Guerrero state, near Mexico City. It’s probable Michoacán is a testing ground to see how a co-opted vigilante force might work.

Local expertise
If the town of Tepalcatepec is anything to go by, the experiment is not a guaranteed success. A squad of 133 federal police are in town as part of their state-wide patrols. When I ask an officer what he thinks of the local Fuerza Rural, he tells me that their “local expertise” comes in useful, particularly in navigating the mountain landscape.

But he is also able to point to the house of a family known to be active in the Knights Templar, and who have been either spared or protected from investigation both by vigilantes and the RPF. He goes on to list three other towns in the area where perdonados – ex-cartel members – are active in the force.

Other autodefensa groups have refused to be involved with the RPF, citing the number of “los malos” – “bad guys” – who are involved. This could also just be a smear: the Tepalcatepec members are loyal to El Doctor, while the Apatzingan group are loyal to Papa Smurf. Either way, the comments are testament to the disputes already hampering the RPF.

Narco, autodefensa, police
Nor has the new force done much to alleviate the atmosphere of fear and distrust that weighs on the town. During a short interview with Martín, a taxi driver, a man walks past, stares at us both, and sits down on a bench nearby. Martín falls silent and then switches to English. “I can’t tell you much more,” he says. “Like, I don’t know who that guy is: narco, autodefensa, police officer. He could be anyone.”

On the bus back to Uruapan, the two RPF officers who check our credentials are scrupulously polite in a way that’s rare among the members of more established police forces. They seem eager to make a good first impression. Whether they can do more than this remains to be seen.

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